PRB Discuss Online: Promoting Public Demography

(March 2011) A guiding principle of population studies is its expected usefulness to society. An established link exists between population studies and public welfare, so population scientists should prioritize public demography, according to Population Council president Peter Donaldson. He defines “public demography” as an effort to reach a public audience with demographic analysis and summaries of research results, discussions of what the results mean, and what, if any, action the public and its elected and appointed officials ought to take based on what has been learned. In a PRB Discuss Online, Peter Donaldson, author of the PRB Occasional Paper Toward an Engaged Public Demography, answered questions from participants about what he means by public demography, its importance, and ways a public demography agenda can be implemented.

March 2, 2011 1 PM (EST)

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Yewande Iwuoha, Producer Good Health: Good day to you, my name is Yewande lwuoha from Lagos, Nigeria. I am particularly interested in this topic as application of demography data is a big issue in my area. The problem with my own part of the world is that our government is yet to grasp the importance of public demography, especially, its application to solve nagging issues crucial to the development of our communities. I am talking about provision of good roads, drinking water, electricity, hospitals, etc. Can you please educate on how best a developing Nation like mine can effectively apply demography data to solve the above mentioned problem areas? Thanks.
Peter Donaldson: The most up-to-date discussion of the population issue with reference to sub-Saharan Africa is a multi-authored paper from a January 2011 Hewlett Foundation conference in Marseille. I don’t know if there is a public-domain version of this. Otherwise, writings by John Cleland probably have important insights. See, for example, a recent Science article by Martha Campbell, John Cleland, et al.

Dharmendra Sharma: Sir, In indian democratic system where we elect our representatives,most of them are not aware about demography even higher policy maker officials do not know much about population studies, in this context how we can use public demography to formulate policies regarding public welfare.
Peter Donaldson: The first challenge is to provide policy makers with summaries of important demographic information and its implications. Summaries can often best be presented in face-to-face meetings with the parliamentarians or their senior assistants. A brief policy memo or briefing paper—no more than two pages—summarizing an important demographic issue, for example continuing high maternal mortality in some sectors in India, and suggestions for policy measures to improve this situation, might be an example for you to consider.

Gouranga Dasvarma: This is a very important discussion about an ever present need to promote demography and demographic research among the public. As Bourgeios-Pichat (1970) said, “..the objectives pursued by demographic research have a bearing on the daily life of individuals..(therefore) the man in the street may be tempted to think that there is no need to be a specialist to discuss these problems. While no one would dream of casting doubt on the assertions of an astrophysicist…, it is not unusual to see the conclusions of demographic research called in question by persons who have no authority in the matter”. It is the last part of the statement which we need to address. On the other hand, there are many who tend to shy away from learning demography because it essentially deals with numbers. Conducting short and simple courses in demography for people of the media, government and the lay public could also help promote public demography. But most international and national organisations are giving very low priority to demography because they perceive the world’s population problem is under control with the decline of fertility worldwide. How to change their priorities?
Peter Donaldson: The global economic crisis has made it difficult to get resources for lots of new programs, including short courses on demography. Maybe you should begin with a larger range of issues than just patterns of population growth. Reminding people of the success we’ve had in lowering infant and maternal mortality but also of the continuing very high rates that demand attention. We know what to do; we have demonstrated success in places; now is not the time to renege on our commitment to women’s health. Demography can point out where investments are likely to pay off.

Lori Hunter: Such an important topic! I agree with Geoff Dabelko’s sentiment that there must be incentives for such engagement and I look forward to your thoughts on this. In addition, how might demographic training programs better educate demographers to, in fact, be “public”?
Peter Donaldson: In terms of public demography I’d emphasize good writing. There’s an appalling amount of bad writing in social sciences. In terms of specifics I’d recommend that every graduate student read John Reed’s essay “On Narrative”, in Social Forces.

Kevin Browning: Is it possible for demographers to work with the United Nations to help bring accurate demographic techniques to developing countries who have no experience in these matters?
Peter Donaldson: The UN population staff, especially those at the regional programs have done an excellent job in improving technical competency of national demographic institutions and their staffs. They have also promoted lots of useful technical exchanges. Given the constraints of working for the United Nations, it’s more difficult for UN demographers to engage in public demography.

William O’Hare: Could you compare and contrast public demography in the domestic-US-context and in the developing world?
Peter Donaldson: Public demography in both the United States and developing countries face many of the same issues, opportunities, and constraints. There is concern, for example, in some Southeast Asian countries about labor migration that has parallels to our immigrant issues. Of course this varies by country and region. There may be less information overload in developing countries so an op-ed piece in the national newspaper might have a greater impact than an equivalent piece in the United States. One difference between the US and developing countries is in the availability and quality of data. The US has much more high quality data available and much more first rate analysis to draw on than the typical developing country.

Matt Acocella: Why do you think there is a bias against academics at universities spending their time of promote their research to the public (as you mentioned in your article on public demography)? How do you think we can start going about changing this culture?
Peter Donaldson: Because the criteria for promotion and grant funding tend to be peer-reviewed articles. Public service typically ranks much lower in most academic environments, certainly in the US.

Roger Junior Colobong: in the field of public demography, aside from giving the data and analysis, will public demographers also be entitled to give their “solutions” to any public issue concerning population?
Peter Donaldson: I think it’s appropriate for public demographers to offer “solutions” to public issues concerning population but the greatest service might be to make sure the public understands the population dimension of various issues.

Bill Butz: Hi Peter. It seems there’s a case demographers can learn from: economists. For better or worse, many scores of economists in many countries speak to the public through columns, interviews, blogs, and Rotary Club speeches. They seek it out and they’re asked. Why the difference between their heavy participation and demographers’ weak participation in the public arena? Can we learn something?
Peter Donaldson: Not sure why this is the case. One important factor may be professional culture. Because economists have been active in the public arena for a long time, there are fewer disincentives. I wonder if the demography of the two groups is also involved. There are a lot more economists than demographers. Another point may be the slow pace of demographic change is of less interest than the price of gas next week. Finally, dare I say, economists are particularly opinionated.

Kofi Awusabo-Asare: One of the groups which is likely to be a major partner in public Demography is journalists. What do you consider to be the approach and training packages for this important group?
Peter Donaldson: I think training journalists to report on population issues would be useful but in the PRB paper I am arguing that demographers should do more writing for the public, not that we should spend more time training journalists to cover population issues.

Chris Hollis: I’m a bit more interested these days in making demographic (and other) data more comprehensible, accessible, and usable for citizens/community members themselves. I’m a Kids Count director and would like to do more community workshops, helping people to better grasp “so what does this mean?” and “what could you do with this?” Especially among Native American groups. Any thoughts/ideas on presenting of information, stimulating community discussion of these questions??
Peter Donaldson: I think simplicity and story telling are two key elements. In terms of specific advice, I’ve been impressed with the interactive graphic data presentations used by the New York Times, for example, to present information on unemployment rates in the United States. As the cursor moves across the chart, rates for specific sub-groups are shown. It’s very effective.

Trilochan Pokharel: This is an interesting discipline. I am interested to relate this discipline with “Demographic Auditing”, a term I would like to promote in policy discourse. Can you suggest how can we promote both these concepts in methods and materials of demography? How can these be made more applicable in countries with different stages of demographic transition?
Peter Donaldson: I am not sure what you mean by demographic auditing, but if you have in mind an annual review of a country’s population situation that would be roughly equivalent to the audited financial statements of a commercial firm, I think it’s a great idea. To make it useful to the largest audience, the numbers would have to be simple and easy to understand. Measures such as total population size, percent of population in different age groups, and a few other key indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, fertility, and school enrollment would be ideal. PRB’s data sheet would be a good model as would PRB’s Kids Count data booklet.

Tere M. Verian: Its a pleasure to have known your great endeavor on educating public about demography. Here in the Philippines, people may not be familiar with some of the effects of growing population. Reproductive health related issues are not amenable with some of the sectors of our community especially the church. Understanding population should unite one nation including them. How can we start promoting this public demography?
Peter Donaldson: One way to begin might be to try to write an article for a local newspaper or website on some aspect of population change in the Philippines. I’m not sure that the necessary data are easily available, but one topic might be the investments in children’s education made by parents with large and small families. Research in other Asian countries has demonstrated that one correlate of smaller family size is greater investments in children’s education, which leads to better employment opportunities, higher earnings, and greater contribution to national development.

Cecily Westermann: Mr. Donaldson—Thank you for making yourself available. I am from the U.S. Despite a Total Fertility Rate of 2.0, the U.S.—with a birthrate of 14 per 1000, a deathrate of 8 per 1000, and nearly 311,000 groups of 1000—is hardly an example of population stabilization. In my situation, I can’t just tell people to open their eyes, and frequently am told “The U.S. will never be overpopulated”. Even a remark that “24 of the 50 U.S. state governors have three or more biological children” can draw a lot of grief. No matter how careful you are in phrasing things—particularly not placing “blame”—some people are offended. What are your suggestions for focusing demographic discussions on the future, rather than on the past and present?
Peter Donaldson: One suggestion for focusing on America’s demographic future might be local area population projections. Because most of my work has been international, I’m not sure about the availability of data, but you might check the Census Bureau website and the American Community Survey. It might be possible to produce state or even city level estimates of growth. Many states have state demographers and state offices that do population projections that are not widely known. Helping to publicize those estimates might be one way to get more attention to the demographic changes underway in the United States.

Meskerem Bekele, Ethiopia: Dear Peter Donaldson I think most of us consider that the issue of demography is the issue of professionals. That is why the issue stays on the air not in the earth. As a media, sometimes deals with this issue indirectly. But how can we deal this issue in the media regularly? How can simplify it to bring in every persons mind?
Peter Donaldson: It’s sometimes difficult to develop storylines that will appeal to the media. One approach might be to begin with a personal or biographical approach, noting the circumstances say, of the migrant population that has moved to find work in Addis Ababa or another city. Describing the situation of a particular family and then pointing out the demographic information of the level and pattern of migration and its impact on sending and receiving areas might get more attention.

Issa Almasarweh: Why in many developing countries the agency charged with demographic issues and polices is not persistently disseminating barriers to population change based on research to decision takers in a compelling means especially in countries like Jordan with frequent government change?
Peter Donaldson: Communicating with policy makers about important demographic issues is almost always a challenge. Demographic change typically takes place over a long period of time. And policy makers tend to be preoccupied with day-to-day events. Concentrating on the long term is difficult for politicians and policymakers no matter where they are. Moreover, developing compelling presentations that will convey the needed information in an accurate and user-friendly way isn’t easy. As I said in answer to a previous question, I think short briefing documents or newspaper pieces on specific topics that provide limited data in an easy to understand format and spell out likely implications are particularly helpful.

Sean Buchanan: What do you believe is the best way to promote public demography?
Peter Donaldson: I’m not sure there’s a single “best” way to promote public demography. Perhaps if there were a regular column on the most popular websites that might help, say if Carl Haub or another expert at explaining demographic phenomena for the public had a monthly column in Slate that would help.

Geoff Dabelko: Peter, couldn’t agree more with your premise. The challenge from my outsider’s perspective is finding demographers who want to engage wider publics and who want to connect their work with other issue areas. Silos are a problem in all disciplines and the academic-practitioner divide is one that is very hard to bridge. What are the practical steps that must be taken to provide incentives and lower penalties for such engagement?
Peter Donaldson: I think the best incentive would be support from colleagues and one’s institution. It would be wonderful, for example, if the US Census Bureau encouraged its staff to publish more popular pieces. But it’s sometimes difficult for employees of the federal government in the United States and other countries to write popular pieces without being accused of engaging in politics, inappropriate lobbying, interference with other agencies, or excessive simplification. Sometimes the endless review process required by government agencies means the pieces are not lively enough or timely enough when they are finally released. That leaves much public demography to academics whose promotion depends on scientific pieces. So one key incentive would be for university departments and research institutes to encourage public demography by giving it some weight in their promotion process.

Issa Almasarweh: I agree with what Dharmendra Sharma said. In Jordan also, demographic issues were totally absent in all six parliamentarian elections’ campaigns we had in the last two decades.
Peter Donaldson: It’s difficult to know what to do to promote more consideration of demographic issues in the political process. All my suggestions are pretty simpleminded. Contact political leaders, ask questions at public events, write letters to the editor in the local newspaper asking for more information about long term demographic trends in issues such as population growth, perhaps especially increasing urbanization, changes in school enrollment, and controversial issues such as maternal mortality and teenage pregnancy. I think one reason why politicians don’t address these issues is they don’t get asked about them very much because people don’t raise them.

Lyn Davidson: Dear Mr. Donaldson, what are some of the ways you’ve noticed demographic research being misused, poorly explained or not understood by journalists? How can working journalists learn to deal better with this kind of information? Thanks so much!
Peter Donaldson: One misuse of demographic data is to cite low fertility in Japan and Western Europe and conclude that population growth is no longer a problem. This misses the regional variation and the fact that sub-Saharan African countries are still growing rapidly. I recently participated in a meeting on mortality at older ages and the US’s position relative to other countries, which isn’t very good. Much of the discussion of our healthcare system and the health of the elderly omits international comparisons of mortality which would be very informative.

Mohammad Umar: You and many of the leading NGOs are working but problems are not removing from the places where you are placed your people, why? As in India the problem of Illitracy rate is gaining day by day, as well many problems are.
Peter Donaldson: I disagree with your assumption. You sound like a glass- is-half-empty person; I’m a glass-is-half-full person. To be sure there are serious problems in India with illiteracy, among other things. But there have also been remarkable improvements in a range of health and educational indicators. Some countries have experienced remarkable transformations, including, for example, India’s neighbor Bangladesh. Countries of Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also undergone remarkable demographic changes that have contributed to economic development.

Jason Hodge: Which outlet of public demography has been most effective at relaying information to the public?
Peter Donaldson: I think two types of outlets have been particularly important, mass circulation newspapers and websites that reach a lot of people and on the other end important policy pieces that have gotten important conversations underway. One example of this might be John Bongaarts’ 1994 article in Science on “Population Policy Options in the Developing World.”

Regina Mendez: How can public demography better equip the people to be critical of the information given to them and distinguish distorted ones or half-truths that are being used to cater to some agenda of specific groups (e.g. political/religious position on Family Planning & Reproductive Health issues)
Peter Donaldson: Perhaps public demography can show the complications of an issue, but without getting too complicated itself. For example, in the recent debate about the wages of public versus private sector employees I’ve been impressed with the analysis that shows that the differences vary by specific position and education level. That type of analysis is very familiar to demographers, and presenting data that provided more nuance might help the public better understand issues and not be mislead by overly simple presentations.